Sentimentality count: zero

THE MISSIONARY AND THE LIBERTINE: Love and War in East and West by Ian Buruma, Faber pounds 16.99

Neal Ascherson
Saturday 27 April 1996 23:02

A wave of stupid Orientalism is turning Western political thinking soggy. By Orientalism, I mean the wish - the need, even - to identify political cultures in Asia and the Arab world as "other'", possessing a nature which is fundamentally alien to Europe and North America. This "otherness" turns out to be the reverse image of all the virtues which the West imagines itself to possess. Asia, we are told, is naturally dictatorial rather than democratic, prefers blind social cohesion to individual choice, and inherits a tendency to fall back into frantic, atavistic violence under stress. And Asian economic success, of course, is achieved by sneaky evasion of our sturdy rules of free trade and competition.

This pathological nonsense is as old as Athenian propaganda about barbarians in the 6th century BC. It has been revived on countless occasions since, and today it returns in the guise of waffle about the "tiger economies" of the Pacific Rim, or with Professor Samuel Huntington's prophecies of the inevitable "culture clash" between the West and (Asian) fundamentalism.

Here, in this wonderful book of essays by Ian Buruma, is the antidote. Buruma, a wandering European intellectual, was educated in Holland and in Japan, and has spent much of his life in Asia. His knowledge, which ranges from an unrivalled degree of scholarship about Japanese cinema to a professional understanding of sport in South Korea, is enormous. But his sentimentality count is zero, and so is his anxiety about political correctness. Buruma's Asia - Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, Singapore - is full of wonders and comedies, a region in which leaders do often behave madly and cruelly, but his Asian societies lack precisely the qualities which Orientalists drool over. They are not particularly mysterious, and they are not unique.

Reviewing Akio Morita's book about how he created Sony, Buruma cuts through Morita's "self-serving platitudes" to destroy the Japanese myth of a unique and harmonious society. The industrial peace which Western business visitors find so awe-inspiring is nothing to do with tradition, but the result of police clubs battering trade-unionists over the head. When he assesses Yukio Mishima, the ultra-conservative writer and subversive who finally committed samurai suicide, Ian Buruma refuses to see in him much more than a gifted mythomaniac, a "suicidal dandy" whose act has far more to do with Baudelaire than with deep Japanese history.

To demystify Asian poses, most of which are aimed at Western sensibility, is also to collapse most of the panic literature about Asia which the West churns out. Buruma takes apart Michael Crichton's thriller Rising Sun, describing how "they" take over America from the inside, which he compares to 19th-century anti-Semitic fiction. He accuses James Fallows' Looking at the Sun, an economic study of what he calls "the Asian System", of swallowing official propaganda spouted by politicians and businessmen. All over Asia, Buruma reminds us, people have been fighting, dying and voting for forms of personal freedom. "None of this means that those people want to be just like Americans: they only wish to be free of despots."

Buruma's strength is that he can read both Japanese and German. He is familiar with Japanese fiction of the 1920s, but he has read Herder and Karl May too; the cast of his mind is firmly Mitteleuropaisch, and yet without that silliness which has wrecked so many clever Europeans engaged with the East. The very best of these essays are about the cultural impact and aftershocks of European colonialism in Asia. Here, typically, Buruma is grinding no axes about "empire"; instead, he is concerned with the hybrid cultures that empires left behind. In India, above all in Bengal, he reviews or interviews Satyajit Ray, Mircea Eliade, Nirad Chaudhuri, V S Naipaul.

Buruma describes unforgettably the "Bengali Renaissance" of the 19th century, and the rise of the bhadralok (gentlemen of substance or, to the British, "educated natives"). This was one of those intellectual elites whose talents and ideals and cultural energy put the imperial race in the shade, but whose roots in their own land, after the British departure, proved too thin to maintain them. Nobody could live up to them. "There was Chaudhuri, lover of Mozart, Pascal, Burke, Wordsworth and Dante, ruled by Englishmen whose intellectual tastes were adequately served by Kipling's 'Barrack-Room Ballads'."

This is not to say that Ian Buruma is impartial. He cannot stand Benazir Bhutto, whereas the Marcos dynasty in the Philippines gets off fairly lightly. He is tender with fumble-fingered Japanese efforts to act Western, but explodes against the "bigoted, exclusive, rigid, racist, authoritarian ways of Japanese officialdom". And this selectivity is what makes Buruma's book so important. He is saying that these lands and their peoples are various, that they can be judged by our own standards, that they are neither a model nor a menace for Europe - in short, that Asia is not the Orient.

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